League One 2016 Review – Part 4: Hunan & Jonoon down after awful seasons; Yiteng have 2016 to forget & Dalian Transcend relegation

Five days in to the new year and it’s finally time to leave 2016 well and truly behind us with the final part of our League One season review. The old adage is that you should save the best til last, but WEF is nothing if not unconventional and so we round out our review with the four worst teams of the season. Hunan Billows and Qingdao Jonoon’s League One stints bit the dust after terrible seasons and Zhejiang Yiteng survived, but had a difficult 2016 in their new home. Dalian Transcendence may have scraped survival by finishing fourteenth, but they’ll look back on the year as a good one, which is more than can be said for most of us. (Part One is here, part two here and part three here)

Zhejiang Yiteng

2016 position – 13th       Pl 30 W 11 D 5 L 14 GF 39 GA 49 GD -10 Pts 38

2015 position – 5th          Pl 30 W 11 D 14 L 5 GF 43 GA 31 GD +12 Pts 47

2016 season grade – E

Overview

Whichever way you slice it, 2016 was a dreadful year for Yiteng as the club completed its rapid fall from grace just two years after capturing the hearts of the nation’s football fans with their efforts to stay in 2014’s Super League.

Zhejiang Yiteng – 2016 in numbers

  • Yiteng’s average attendance dipped from 20,477 which it was last year while they were still in Harbin to 2,300 in 2016
  • Zhejiang are the only League One team to have taken more points away (20) than at home (18) – unsettled?
  • Their foreign trio of Adam Hughes, Rodrigo and Ricardo Steer missed a combined total of 16 matches in 2016 through suspension, including 11 total games for violent conduct

Back then, of course, the club was still based in Harbin and were pulling in an average of 26,000 fans at home matches. That support evaporated at the tail end of the 2015 season thanks to a match-fixing controversy surrounding a game against Dalian Yifang and the club relocated to the Zhenjiang city of Shaoxing prior to 2016’s kick-off. With domestic stars Bu Xin, Liu Yi and Han Xu departing prior to the season, being competitive in the promotion race was always going to be a struggle, but the appointment of League One specialist Goran Tomic in place of Duan Xin gave cause for optimism as the club attempted to win over a new fan base.

Unfortunately, things got off to a dreadful start when the club lost their opening two games – the second a 5-2 defeat by Tianjin Quanjian in their maiden game in Shaoxing – and Tomic departed with only one fifteenth of the season gone.

The official reason for the Croat’s departure was the imminent birth of a child and Duan Xin was back in charge of a club that seemed to be going nowhere fast. To be fair to the unimaginative Duan, results did pick up sharply in the early phases of his tenure with the club taking 26 points across the next thirteen games and finding themselves fourth in the table at the mid-way point of the season.

It was at that point that the wheels came off as a run of five straight defeats was supplemented by the news that the club would have to play their next four home matches outside of Shaoxing as the security and image conscious Chinese government prepared for the G20 in neighbouring Hangzhou. The first two games saw them head south to Lishui deep in provincial Zhejiang and then, even more absurdly, they played their next two “home” games in Dalian in a decision which won’t have ingratiated them to their fledgling fan base.

Still, wins over Qingdao Huanghai and Hunan Billows meant the club remained in the top ten with seven games remaining, before a run of six points from their last seven matches saw them plummet down the table and briefly flirt with relegation.

Aside from poor results, the season was marked with ugly football; a woeful disciplinary record which saw the foreign trio of Rodrigo, Ricardo Steer and Adam Hughes miss a combined total of sixteen games through suspension; an average attendance of just 2,300 – down from over 20,000 the year before when they were based in Harbin; and their pitch in Shaoxing being in atrocious condition despite the stadium having a retractable roof which inexplicably remained open throughout the rainy summer months.

Defining Game

For such a damp squib of a season, it seems fitting to choose a non-event as the game which best encapsulates Zhejiang’s season – no game in 2016 was less of an event than their 1-0 “home” defeat to Xinjiang. Of course, the club was not to blame for being forced to play outside of Shaoxing while the Chinese government’s excessive security machine prepared to host the G20, but the choice to play in a city as far away from Zhejiang as Dalian was one motivated by Yiteng’s ties in the city rather than anything else. The decision added further currency to the idea that they will always fundamentally be a Dalian club wherever they are based and that is the primary reason the ultras in Harbin turned on the club last season.

What this meant was a game played out in front of generously calculated crowd of 663 people and a dreadful contest with little in the way of action. The match was settled when Hao Qiang headed a Mustapha Nurahmet cross into his own net during first half stoppage time, but that wasn’t the only talking point as Hughes and Rodrigo both got themselves sent off in the closing stages of the game as frustration set in.

The match was the team at their aesthetic and disciplinary worst, and it was the club’s ownership at their absolute organisational nadir.

Player of the Season

When he wasn’t attacking referees with his finger-shaped tongue, Rodrigo was busy being Yiteng’s best player

Adam Hughes was the beating heart of the team as he has been throughout his five years with Yiteng, but his discipline reached an all time low this year and a vicious running forearm on Shanghai Shenxin midfielder Ye Chongqiu in June was a massive black mark that earned him a justified five game suspension.

Despite his own disciplinary issues, Rodrigo was the undoubted star of a season he ended with twelve goals and four assists. Hardly a spectacular haul, but the key is eight of those strikes came during Yiteng’s impressive early season, post-Tomic run. Significantly, four of those goals were match winners in narrow games that earned the club eight vital points. The Brazilian attacker tailed off towards the end of the year, but without his early season heroics Yiteng may have found themselves staring into the abyss of League Two.

Centre back Wang Dalong and left back Li Xudong are also worth a mention as they both performed well while the other half of the back four, Hao Qiang and right back Li Jian, really struggled. 18 year-old winger Liu Yue also showed a lot of promise during his nineteen starts which made him the youngest regular first-teamer in any of China’s top two divisions.

Looking Ahead

In theory, things can’t get much worse than 2016, although a relegation could obviously top things off next season. The good news from a forward looking perspective is that Duan Xin has now gone from the club having returned to Harbin with League Two side Heilongjiang Lava Spring.

Duan has certainly done a job during his time with Yiteng, but his managerial style seems to consist of roughing up opponents, lobbing the ball up to the Ricardo Steer and hoping for the best. His decisively leaving the club is also important as he may have remained lurking behind the scenes casting a shadow over the new manager as he did with Tomic.

Wang Dalong (16) has already left Yiteng and it looks like Rodrigo (10) will be on his way, too

Duan’s replacement is Mauricio Copertino who is embarking on his first head coaching role having spent the entirety of his career as an assistant. The Brazilian has some experience of League One having been a part of Vanderlai Luxemburgo’s staff during his ill-fated spell at Tianjin Quanjian earlier in the season. The truth is, though, that Copertino is a completely unknown quantity and it’s impossible to be certain how he will work out.

Something that will help the rookie manager heading into 2017 will be the club managing to keep hold of their best remaining domestic players having failed to do so over the last couple of off-seasons. Yan Xiangchuang, Bu Xin, Liu Yi, Xu Dong and Han Xu have all departed the club since the end of 2014 and vital centre back Wang Dalong has already joined the list of quality departees having sealed a move to the newly minted Shenzhen FC. Li Xudong and young midfielder Piao Taoyu could also become targets of predatory clubs before the transfer window closes.

Domestic recruitment is likely to be muted at best, but there are expected to be changes in the foreign playing staff with Ricardo Steer and Rodrigo both rumoured to be on their way. Rodrigo did enough in the early part of last year to prove he sill has something to offer at this level so letting him go is a risk depending on who replaces him, but the 34-year-old Steer’s race may finally after five years with Yiteng and eight years in China. Adam Hughes may stick around for another year to give the club some fight, but he’ll need to calm down a bit in order maximise his playing time.

The club has an entire off-season to build a fanbase and they will definitely benefit from not having to depart Shaoxing for over a month in 2017. They also have time to do something about their abysmal pitch, but a club that seems to have little ambition beyond mere existence may not bother just as they probably won’t make any real improvements to the playing staff before 2017.

Dalian Transcendence

2016 position – 14th                             Pl 30 W 10 D 8 L 12 GF 32 GA 36 GD -4 Pts 38

2015 position – 1st (CL2 North)        Pl 14 W 10 D 4 L 0  GF 39 GA 49 GD -10 Pts 34

2016 season grade – A-

Overview

A successful season for Transcendence who achieved their solitary goal of surviving a difficult first season in the second tier after winning promotion from League Two in 2015. After taking four points from their first two games, including a surprising season opening win away to the freshly relegated Shanghai Shenxin, the club lost four in a row to drop out of the top half of the table and never return.

Dalian Transcendence – 2016 in numbers

  • Despite finishing 14th, only five clubs had a better defensive record than Transcendence who conceded 36 goals
  • Transcendence were involved in six 0-0 draws in 2016 – one fifth of their games

By the end of that winless run, manager Liu Zhongchang had stepped down and been replaced Ermin Siljak who had connections with the city thanks to three seasons as a player with Dalian Shide over ten years earlier. The Slovenian won his second match in charge to snap the losing streak, but lost foreign striker Erton Fejzullahu to a serious injury in the process.

Three defeats from the next four left the club down in fourteenth, but Siljak showed signs of successfully tightening up the defence in order to compensate for their lack of fire power and what followed was a run of four clean sheets in a row. Unfortunately, three of those four games ended in goalless draws and the streak came crashing to an end with a 4-0 hammering at home to Shenxin.

A 1-0 defeat away to Wuhan Zall the following week left the club in the relegation zone and their need for a new foreign striker to replace Fejzullahu was being laid increasingly bare. The good news was that the transfer window was now open and after a surprising 3-1 win over Beijing Renhe, Transcendence secured the signature of former Hohhot Zhongyou forward William Paulista who made his debut at half-time during the following week’s Dalian derby by coming off the bench and playing a pivotal role in turning a 1-0 deficit into a a 2-1 win.

The victory over Yifang was a high point in Transcendence’s season, but within two games Siljak had left the club for reasons that were never entirely made clear. He was replaced by assistant Rusmir Cviko who had no pedigree as head coach but managed to oversee a run of four wins from the next six games which, along with Qingdao Jonoon’s implosion, proved enough to keep the club up.

Cviko made few changes from Siljak’s style and the key to Transcendence’s survival was a midfield which could maintain possession while protecting a weak defence and the partnership stuck up between winger Jailton Paraiba and William Paulista which gave the club the attacking threat they lacked in the first half of the season.

Defining Game

The last game before Siljak’s mysterious departure saw the club travel to Guiyang to take on table-topping Guizhou Zhicheng. With Transcendence sitting in fourteenth before kick-off, the visitors were massive underdogs, but the team had been improving thanks to the arrival of William Paulista and the excellent midfield duo of Zhang Gong and Han Xu who began flourishing under Siljak.

Han Xu and Jailton Paraiba (seen here in action against Xinjiang) performed well against Guizhou Zhicheng

Despite the discrepancies between the sides’ league positions, the game was a competitive one where Transcendence more than held their own and got plenty of chance on the counter thanks to the pace of Jailton Paraiba. Zhicheng’s Iminjan Ilhamjan had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside just before half-time in a warning that spoke to the visitors’ defensive vulnerabilities, but the game continued to be scoreless when Zhicheng won a corner with less than 20 minutes to go.

Transcendence defender Wang Hongyou completely forgot to mark Festus Baise who pounced on to Iban Cuadrado’s knock-on to give the hosts the lead most expected they would maintain. The visitors didn’t give up, though, and less than ten minutes later Jailton Paraiba had played a one-two with William Paulista and equalised from a narrow angle.

The game showed the importance of the Brazilian attacking duo to Transcendence’s survival, but also demonstrated their ability to put up a fight despite the apparent superiority of most of their opponents. The individual weaknesses of their defenders were also laid bare on the legitimate goal and the disallowed one, but they just did enough to get a result in the same way they just did enough to survive.

Player of the Season

Midfielders Han Xu and Zhang Gong were pivotal to Transcendence’s success in 2016 as they helped the team keep possession more successfully than the majority of their fellow strugglers and valuable protection to a weak defence. Indeed, Han earned a spot in out team of the season and Zhang has already moved on to bigger and better things after an early transfer to CSL side Guangzhou R&F.

However, neither player had the individual importance of Jailton Paraiba who was vital to an attack that otherwise struggled for much of the year. Twelve goals and four assists aren’t an enormous output, but they combine to account for half of the teams 32 goals and the assist count would have been higher if William Paulista had been there to bang in the goals for the entire season rather than just the last twelve games.

Statistics aside, the diminutive wrecking ball’s importance lies in his lightning pace and stocky frame which always gave Transcendence an out ball that allowed them to relieve pressure and keep the opposition honest. The biggest weakness in the 26-year-old’s game remains his finishing but, following on from his excellent 2015 with Yanbian, it’s strange that he isn’t playing at a higher level given what he could offer to a poor Super League club.

Looking Ahead

Cviko did enough to earn a new contract for the new season in a move that tells us a couple of things. The first is that the Bosnian seems to have earned the trust of the players and the club during his short time in charge. The second is that finances are tight and Transcendence couldn’t really afford anyone else.

Liu Tao (36) spent much of the season at centre back for Transcendence where he struggled

Indeed, there were reports last month that the club were not guaranteed to have the funding necessary to make it into 2017. The ownership has since made it clear that they will make still be around in March and are already in Hainan for pre-season training, but frugality will be the order of things this off-season.

Keeping William Paulista and Jailton Paraiba will be a priority, while the club may also want to maintain the services of centre back David Fallman. Individually, the Swede looks slow and error prone, but he brings some leadership and organization to a defence which is full of below par individuals.

Indeed, defence is the place where they need to strengthen as the likes of Liu Huan, Wang Hongyou, Liu Tao and Xue Yanan were all found wanting and could do with an upgrade. Inexplicably, Liu Huan has already earned a move to the Super League with a transfer to Chongqing Lifan that will stun anybody who actually saw him play in 2016. The club has also picked up centre back Liu Yusheng from the league’s worst team Hunan Billows and right back Zheng Jianfeng who they let go two years before he subsequently kicked around the lower Portuguese leagues while rarely playing.

In the midfield, Han Xu looks set to stick around, but Zhang Gong’s departure will leave a big hole in the which can’t be filled with what they already have. Zhang was quite a find as a clubless free agent pick up last off-season and, with money tight, they may be hoping to unearth similar gems in 2017 as the recruitment they’ve already done leaves a lot to be desired.

Qingdao Jonoon

2016 position – 15th       Pl 30 W 8 D 9 L 13 GF 30 GA 43 GD -13 Pts 33

2015 position – 7th          Pl 30 W 11 D 8 L 11 GF 30 GA 39 GD -9  Pts 41

2016 season grade – F

Overview

There was something increasingly inevitable about Jonoon’s relegation in 2016 as the club’s perpetual decline finally came to haunt them. A top flight staple between 1997 and 2013, the club’s third season in the second tier ended in a second relegation in four years.

Qingdao Jonoon – 2016 in numbers

  • If Jonoon don’t go out of business before next season, they will be the first club in the professional era (since 1994) to sink into League Two from the Super League
  • Jonoon won just once in a run of 16 games between rounds 11 and 26

Su Maozhen, who had done well with city rivals Hainiu in his last job, was appointed manager before the start of the season, but there were already ominous signs of what was to come when centre back Li Peng, midfielder Wang Jun and goalkeeper Mou Pengfei all failed to register for the season thanks to contract disputes. All three probably would have been starters and it was an indication that the club was still plagued by the off-season problems which had led to previous protracted disputes with former players Liu Jian and Gabriel Melkam.

Despite that pre-season set-back, the team had a solid if unspectacular start to the season and sat as high as fifth place following a 4-1 hammering of Meizhou Hakka in round 10. What followed, though, was a disastrous run of nine games without a win which culminated in a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Shanghai Shenxin.

A 2-1 win over fellow 2013 CSL relegatees Wuhan Zall finally stopped the rot and earned Su a temporary reprieve, but a further five matches without victory finally cost the former China striker his job with five games remaining. Grizzled veteran Yin Tieshang was called over from the managing the Shandong women’s team to try and save Jonoon, but they were already mired deep in the relegation zone by that point and needed a miracle to survive.

Yin’s first game in charge was a derby against Qingdao Huanghai and a 1-0 defeat in that game made the task of surviving even less likely. Wins over Zhejiang Yiteng and Hunan Billows gave Jonoon hope going into a round 29 clash away to Beijing BG where a win meant survival could be achieved with another victory over Dalian Transcendence in the final game of the season. BG were on a dismal run and seemed to be there for the taking, but Leke James gave the host a first half lead and late equaliser from Shikoze Udoji wasn’t enough to save the club from relegation.

Ultimately, the failure over the years to replace numerous departing stars such as Zou Zheng, Liu Jian, Jiang Ning, Song Wenjie, Qu Bo and Zheng Long had taken an irreparable toll on the club. The additional absences of Li Peng, Wang Jun and Mou Pengfei certainly didn’t help and neither did the underwhelming performances of foreign recruits Eddie Hernandez, Udoji and Johnny.

Li Peng worked out his differences with the club to return at centre back during the second half of the season, but his comeback was offset by the departure of starting midfielder Song Long who left for Shandon Luneng at the same time. It’s hard to place too much blame on Su Maozhen, but things were clearly not working out under him and club probably took too long to try and turn things around under a new man.

Defining Game

This one’s easy. On May 28th, Jonoon took on city rivals Qingdao Huanghai in a round 11 derby which would set the tone for the rest of the season. Coming into the match, Jonoon sat in fifth and Huanghai were the surprising division leaders, but few would have had the table-toppers down as favourites to win.

Let It Go: Song Long (23) looks relieved after Wang Jianwen’s (10) late equaliser but Huanghai still found a winner in the derby

Jonoon hadn’t lost to Huanghai in four meetings between the clubs and the latter were without injured striker Djordje Rakic. Over 20,000 fans showed up to see the spectacle at Huanghai’s Guoxin Stadium and they were treated to an exceptional game that definitively set the clubs on different trajectories.

Huanghai dominated the first half, but only had a 1-0 lead to show for it thanks to a header from Wan Houliang. Midfielder Wang Jianwen punished Huanghai’s failure to capitalise on their dominance five minutes into the second half when he fired an emphatic ten yard finish into the roof of the net and it looked like things were destined to end level as the game ticked over into the final ten minutes.

What happened next was remarkable as Yuri restored Huanghai’s lead in the 83rd minute when he tapped in following a penalty area scramble. This prompted Jonoon captain Song Long to lose his mind as he felt he had been fouled by Liu Long in the build up and what followed was an amusing few minutes were the future Shandong Luneng player screamed, shouted, threw down his arm band and embarked on a failed attempt to lead his teammates into walking off the field.

As a subsequent string of heavy tackles showed, some of Jonoon’s players had lost their heads, but Wang Jianwen kept his and, one minute into stoppage time, he rifled a pinpoint 20-yard free kick into the top corner. Jonoon’s players wildly celebrated apparently preserving their unbeaten record in the derby but, two minutes later, Marti Crespi was hammering in a Huanghai winner after Jonoon’s Sun Xu had headed a Fan Lingjiang cross right into his path.

The game had all the excitement you’d hope for from a derby, but it seemed to leave Jonoon broken. This was the beginning of the nine game winless run which saw them sink into the relegation mire and marked a real passing of the torch as Huanghai definitively replaced them as Qingdao’s number one team.

Player of the Season

It’s really hard to pick an outstanding player from 2016 as no one in Jonoon’s squad will look back on the season with pride. Wang Jianwen’s five goals and seven assists probably make him the club’s best player over the course of the year, although he was far from consistent.

Wang, who was relegated for the second season in a row after going down with Jiangxi Liansheng in 2015, always looked good when he played in a deeper defensive midfield role, but often started in a more advanced position where he rarely shined. His Qingdao derby heroics highlighted what he can do on his day, but a failure to produce any goals or assists across the last ten games of the season tell the story of a player with plenty of talent that isn’t shown regularly enough.

Honourable mention for Jonoon veteran Wang Wei who was really hard working as both a winger and full back, but there wasn’t much output to show for it.

Looking Ahead

Next year will be about rebuilding in League Two with a group of young players supplemented by a couple of veterans. CFA rules forbid foreign players from competing in the third tier and so Hernandez, Udoji and Johnny will all be gone. However, the bigger losses have already happened on the domestic front.

Eddie Hernandez won’t return in 2017 and the club will be keen to keep hold of Wang Wei (21)

Even before Jonoon had been relegated, it was an open secret that Li Peng and Zhu Jianrong would be moving to Shanghai Shenhua at the end of the season and both of those transfer have already gone through. It took Li a while to get going after returning from half a season on the sidelines this year but, when he did, he was clearly the club’s best centre back and will be missed. Zhu had an injury hit season, but would have been a top striker in League Two and so his absence will also be felt. Goalkeeper Mou Pengfei has also departed for Beijing Renhe having sat out 2016 over a contract dispute.

The club will be hoping that Li Zhuangfei, Wang Wei and Wang Jianwen stick around and that youngsters Zhong Yihao, Sun Xu, Hu Weiwei and Wang Ziming develop sufficiently to be competitive in League Two. None of those starlets greatly impressed last season, but the latter has already been called into the China U-22 set up and there is definitely potential there.

It looks like Yin Tiesheng will stay in charge and, to be fair to Jonoon, their 33 point haul would have been enough to secure a twelfth place finish in the 2015 season and is the highest total a club has been relegated with in League One history. That means they should be good enough for an immediate return to the second tier if they are able to negotiate their way through the tricky and unpredictable League Two playoffs.

Hunan Billows

2016 position – 16th       Pl 30 W 2 D 6 L 22 GF 16 GA 61 GD -45 Pts 12

2015 position – 15th          Pl 30 W 8 D 5 L 17 GF 32 GA 48 GD -16  Pts 29

2016 season grade – U

Overview

There’s not much to stay about Hunan’s season apart from the fact that it was absolutely awful. The club avoided relegation with a last minute winner at the end of the 2015 season, but there was no such drama in 2016 where they finished a remarkable 21 points adrift of fifteenth place of Qingdao Jonoon.

  • Hunan – 2016 in numbers
  • Hunan’s points total of 12 is the lowest in League One history
  • Hunan ended the season with a 17 game winless run
  • They only managed 16 goals throughout the entire season – 10 were scored by Liu Xinyu and Luis Cabezas who netted 5 each

The crazy thing is that Hunan’s season actually got off to a bright start when they earned five points from their opening three fixtures against promotion favourites Beijing Renhe, Dalian Yifang and Tianjin Quanjian. Some articles even referred to them as promotion dark horses, but the wheels came off extremely quickly as they then took one point from their next nine games.

That run included an embarrasing 6-0 destruction by Meizhou Hakka and the only draw amongst a sea of defeats was a home tie with Xinjiang who almost never win away. By the time they ended that run with a 2-0 home win over Jonoon, Huang Xiangdong had replaced Tomasz Kavcic as manager.

That round 13 victory would be the last of the entire season and what followed was a spectacular streak where they earned just one point from the next thirteen games before picking up two more from their last four matches. Relegation had pretty much been a certainty since the midway point of the season, but there were other low points in 2016 that are worth highlighting.

In the midst of Euro 2016 they lost 1-0 at home to local rivals Wuhan Zall which prompted understandably frustrated supporters to copy Croatian ultras by trying to throw flares onto the field. The sizable running track around the pitch meant this attempted protest lacked the desired effect and a group of ultras then headed to the training ground later that night to express their rage.

Three weeks later, Tianjin Quanjian came to town and this time supporters opted to demonstrate their anger by emulating Russian fans. This meant attacking the sizable group of Quanjian supporters in attendance and stealing their banners as Hunan were dispatched 3-0 on the field. With the vast majority of Quanjian fans in attendance being in family and mixed sex groups, the whole incident was an embarrassment that came close to matching the team’s on field performances and meant the next home match was played behind closed doors.

The only slight chink of hope in a miserable 2016 was some improved displays towards the tail end of the season when several senior players had been frozen out and some hungry youngsters were brought through. The failure to improve results speaks to a lack of real quality, but at least there was some effort being put in long after many of the first team regulars had given up.

Defining Game

Hunan were still fourth in the table when they travelled to take on Meizhou Hakka in round 5. They’d lost the week before to Guizhou Zhicheng, but nobody could have predicted how their season was going to fall off a cliff before this game kicked-off. Plenty could have foreseen it by the time the match was over, though.

Make no mistake, Meizhou is a tough place to go where journey is long and the afternoon kick-off in 36C humid heat was only made more energy sapping by the heavy, rain-sodden pitch. That’s no excuse for what followed, though, as Meizhou ran out 6-0 winners in a game where they realistically could have scored twice as many.

Yao Jiangshan (33) epitomises Hunan’s mood throughout 2016

Hunan started badly, got worse as the first half and were extremely lucky to be only 1-0 down at half-time. Star attacker Chen Zijie didn’t seem to fancy it and went off with an “injury” after half an hour and Cao Huan, who had looked like a China League One N’golo Kante in the first three games of the season, can’t have covered more than one kilometre of ground in the first half. He was subbed off at the interval and, like the entire club, his season never recovered.

Meizhou’s attacking trio of Japa, Yu Jianfeng and Gao Zhilin went into overdrive in the second half and the goals piled up much to the joy of the home fans. Everybody in Hunan’s defence was awful, with centre back Rok Elsner being particularly bad. Midfielder Jhon Valoy ran around a lot with no particular purpose and attacker Luis Cabezas tried his best in a hopeless cause. You could probably write those same two sentences for many other Hunan games subsequent to this one as the club’s season descended into farce.

Player of the Season

Luis Cabezas deserves an honourbale mention here for his hard work for much of the season, but he lacked the quality they needed to help them rescue something from the few games they actually looked competitive in. There’s no way a defender can be in contention here so let’s give it to winger Liu Xinyu who at least played well in some games and looked a real threat on occasion. Liu’s biggest weakness is his finishing as he got himself in some dangerous positions over the course of the season only to squander the opportunity, but he still managed five goals in 21 starts.

Xie Weichao looked competent when he played left back as did young midfielder Cao Guodong when he got a run in the team late in the season. Hardly high praise, but competence was a rarity at Hunan Billows in 2016.

Looking Ahead

It’s hard to be optimistic about the club’s future given how catastrophic their season was. Cabezas will have to leave as foreign players will be ineligible in League Two and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the frozen out senior players such as Cao Huan, Li Xiang and Chen Zijie find alternative employment in 2017 if anyone will have them. It’s already been confirmed that centre backs Liu Yusheng and Sun Guoliang will be leaving for Dalian Transcendence and Qingdao Huanghai, respectively, with many wondering what on earth they did during a dreadful 2016 to earn a transfer.

As mentioned above there were some improved performances towards the end of the season and the likes of Cao Guodong, Wang Chen, Xie Weichao and Liu Xinyu should do well in the third tier if they stick around. Unfortunately, it seems as though the club’s ownership has lost interest and so there is no reason to believe they will work to improve things in 2017.

As it stands, Huang Xiangdong remains in charge and, while he faced adverse circumstances, he appeared tactically clueless for most of his reign and it often looked like he just stuck players names into a lottery machine style random position generator, such was the frequency he juggled around the team.

Author: Jamie McIlroy

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall.

A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.

Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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